History of Polish Orphanages

Polish orphanages have a history of child-centered care, unlike state orphanages in some other eastern European countries. The Polish foster care system dates from the end of the Polish-Russian War, which followed World War I, when the country struggled with the numbers of war orphans.

There was then, already a functioning orphan care system, the Sierociniec system, organized by the Catholic Church and hospitals. This system provided for the children's physical needs and shelter, but the institutions had the character of orphans' asylums, similar to some of the orphanages in certain other eastern European countries. There are no Sierociniec left in Poland today.

The Polish children's author and pediatrician, Janusz Korczak, taught the importance of a child's inner development. He wrote that every child is different and has his or her own path in life. The orphanage's duty is to prepare the child for its future as an adult.

In 1911 Korczak became head of an orphanage in Warsaw, Dom Sierot, which means Orphans' Home in English. Here he put in place his principles of childcare.

In 1919 he published the book 'How to Love a Child' (Jak kochać dziecko) which has influenced Polish childcare in Poland till today. Janusz Korczak saw society divided into two groups, adults and children. He wrote that adults have forgotten how it was to be a child and suppress the children's development. He often appeared in court as a defense witness for children who had broken the law. He said the child was a victim and the adults who had not taken their responsibility to raise the child properly, were the guilty party.

After the Polish-Russian War, Korczak's pedagogic philosophy led to developing the new Dom Dziecka or Children's Home concept. In this model, the children had their basic needs met as well as being brought up to be well-adjusted adults. Putting the children in smaller units with a carer/teacher in charge made this possible. The idea was to simulate a family unit, where the children formed strong social bonds within the group, while each child had the opportunity for self-development in an atmosphere of trust and caring.

In the period between the wars the two models of orphan care ran parallel in Poland, the older Sierociniec system and the newer Dom Dziecka concept. After the Second World War, the archaic Sierociniec institutions closed and the Dom Dziecka became the main Polish foster care system. Two types of children's homes developed, one for children up to end of primary or elementary school, and a Youth Home for youth in their last years of school. This youth home helped the children with the final preparation for adult life.

During the 1950s a strong Russian influence on the Polish social infrastructure began to affect the Dom Dziecka type of care where peer pressure of the collective came before the individual's development. This resulted in some Poles looking for other alternatives. From the late 1960s until the fall of communism there was a move towards adoption, placing orphans in family foster homes and smaller foster home units.

Over the years there were fewer parentless orphans, and more children removed from their parental home because of neglect, abuse, or whose parents had lost their parental rights. These children are called social orphans. About 96% of children in the Polish foster care system today are social orphans.

The Dom Dziecka orphanages in Poland care for over 25000 children today. Most of the children in their care have suffered emotional trauma and need more care than the average child in a stable family. Unfortunately the orphanages do not have the resources to fill this extra need. The staff in the Polish Children's Homes are often committed and caring people, doing the best they can with the limited resources available to them. However there is the natural tendency for some staff to become institutionalised themselves, putting their efforts into taking care of the children's physical needs, food, wash, go to sleep and have as little disruption in between. The children’s emotional needs are therefore neglected or ignored. The difference between different Dom Dziecka is the director’s attitude.

Charities are stepping in to fill this gap, like the Fundacja Radosć (Christian Joy Foundation) in Warsaw, which organizes regular camps several times through the year. Agape Trust has regular (weekly) contact with children in some orphanages in northern Poland and with young adults who have grown up in the Polish orphanage system. Our current focus is on young unmarried mothers who have left the orphanage system and are struggling to cope with life after an institutionalised childhood, which started often in dysfunctional families. This is where Agape Trust needs support.

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